The fireworks-laden CNN/Tea Party Express Republican debate on Monday night didn’t much change the chattering class’s assessment of the candidates, with most pundits interpreting the pounding that Perry received as a confirmation of his dominance of the field. Because he was attacked from the “left” on Social Security and the “right” on immigration and his controversial HPV vaccination program, he’s being hailed as “the Man in the Middle,” which is where you want to be.

This sanguine interpretation depends heavily on the assumption that the attacks on Perry somehow cancel each other out. But there’s no indication that Perry’s rabid denouncements of Social Security are winning him accolades from voters on his right flank—and, indeed, they may even be hurting him among these folks as well. Perry, in other words, isn’t just vulnerable to the roundabout argument that denouncing Social Security will make him less electable in November of 2012; it makes him less “nominatable” as well.

The idea that Tea Party supporters and other hard-core conservative voters just love Perry’s harsh rhetoric about Social Security—an assumption that television commentators repeated often after the Florida debate—is actually not all that well-supported. While sporadic polling on the subject indicates that conservative Republicans, including Tea Party folk, care more about reducing the budget deficit than about protecting entitlement programs, and are marginally more open to changes in Social Security and Medicare than the average voter, there is certainly no evidence they share Perry’s claim that it was unconstitutional from the beginning and should ultimately be junked in favor of some state-run alternative (the latter idea is so completely eccentric that it has never been polled, though that will likely change). And a poll released on Monday by CNN tested Perry’s “monstrous lie” and “failure” characterizations of the program and found Tea Party supporters rejecting it by a 59-40 margin; Republicans, in general, reject it 69-31 and conservatives reject it 67-32. 

Looking a little deeper, there is anecdotal evidence that to the extent very conservative voters are critical of Social Security and Medicare, it’s as a subset of general hostility to federal spending. Compared to other kinds of federal spending, however, they are golden—not just because Republicans and Tea Party supporters disproportionately benefit from retirement programs thanks to their high relative age, but because they view them as earned benefits that are morally superior to “redistributive” or “welfare” programs. Here’s what The American Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie heard on a recent visit to a Tea Party event in South Carolina:

During a campaign event in Myrtle Beach on Labor Day, the Texas governor said that “anyone who wants to keep the status quo on entitlements isn’t being honest,” and at Wednesday’s GOP debate in California, Perry called the retirement program a “monstrous lie” and a “Ponzi scheme.”

To the older, white Tea Party voters Perry needs to win the Republican nomination, this simply isn’t true. “We paid into Social Security,” said Steven Anderson, a member of the Low Country 9/12 project and a retiree. His wife, Judie, chimed in, “It’s not an entitlement, it’s ours.” The same went for Art LeBruce, a retired Army medic and longtime member of the group: “That’s my money that I put into Social Security—I deserve it.”

This sentiment echoes the strong, defensive attitude towards Medicare expressed by conservative seniors when it was argued that “ObamaCare” might divert money from their hard-earned benefits to health insurance for younger and poorer Americans. 

Seen from this perspective, the attacks on Perry Monday night on Social Security and on immigration may not be coming from different directions. They could actually become mutually reinforcing, depicting the Texan as someone who has contempt for generations of retirees who relied on the “unconstitutional” New Deal program—but has compassion for illegal immigrants and their children. Michele Bachmann might be just the rival to put these themes together (she was reportedly planning to go after Perry on Social Security at the Florida debate, but Romney preempted any opportunity to do so). After all, back in 2009 she actually preceded Sarah Palin in linking ObamaCare to Medicare cuts and ultimately to “death panels” aimed at seniors.

It would also not be the first time in Republican presidential politics that a policy position interpreted as “very conservative” got a candidate into trouble with conservatives for unanticipated reasons. In 1976, Ronald Reagan narrowly lost the New Hampshire primary—and arguably, the nomination—because conservative voters were convinced by clever Gerald Ford operatives that the Gipper’s proposal to devolve welfare programs to the states might force adoption of statewide taxes in the Granite State, a major no-no. 

So it is not clear at this point whether Perry is, in fact, the “Man in the Middle,” whose critics from the left and the right make him seem more reasonable than his manner would indicate and poise him to win the nomination. Unless he gets his act together and ignores flattering polls and press clippings, he could wind up being a “Man in the Crossfire,” suffering from an eroding Tea Party base and increasing skepticism from electability-focused GOP elites.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.